Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This Week on Audiosurf Radio – Folk Fusion Edition

process My encounters with Japanese music are mainly of the videogame variety.  I’ve got albums by The Black Mages. There are countless Mega Man covers in my iTunes library.  The original Katamari Damacy soundtrack dominated my iPod for a few months in 2005. 

But Japanese techno-fusion is not a field I’m well-versed in.  Nor am I familiar with the quite-unrelated genre of Ukrainian folk music.  Good thing Audiosurf’s providing a crash course in both this week.

Nanten provides our Japanese techno-fusion.  I reckon the “fusion” refers to Nanten’s incorporation of elements from Japanese folk music – specifically the use of instruments that sound like taiko, shamisen, and shakuhachi.  “Fusion” may be a fine blanket term, but I’m more intrigued the terms thrown around on Nanten’s website like “Tribal Trance.”  Sounds dangerous!  By the way, both songs come from their album Polyphonic Shrine

I am utterly confused and transfixed by ViyTheir website looks cool, but Google only feels like translating part of it some of the time so I’m at a loss for a good information.  I think I can see the words “Dark Ethno Fusion” below their terrifying banner image.  Their name derives from a demon/gnome-thing from Ukrainian folklore , which totally jives with their bizarre, modern take on folk music. 

What the hell is going on with this week’s music?  And why do I like it so much?

The Songs

The muted “Morning Fog” mixes a morning meditation in a Zen garden with the aftershocks of last night’s rave.  You were up until 4 a.m. doing shots and hanging out with Daft Punk.  You’ve showered.  Now it’s time to clean the mind of yesternight’s revelries.  Ambient voices – one resembling a Japanese analog to Alvin the Chipmunk – chatter away, echoing dimly over the music like memories.  Traditional string and wind instruments (your friends in the garden) tread nonchalantly over the club’s thumping yet subdued bass line.  In fact, the whole track feels rather subdued.  There’s an electric guitar strumming away in the background, but it never fades in to up the intensity.  It’s sort of like it doesn’t want any attention.  The ride’s fun, and I felt engaged with the puzzles the traffic presented.  I just never felt that rush of adrenaline most techno songs cultivate in their latter phrases.  Then again, adrenaline doesn’t sound very Zen.

If “Morning Fog” is you relaxing in a Zen garden, “Elf Fire” is you being chased from your precious garden by a cadre of robot ninja assassins.  Turns out my usual gripes about melismatic moaning in techno don’t apply when it’s in another language.  Without my knowledge of the lyrics, that stuff’s free to be as eerie as the artist intends.  In regards to other techno tropes, I thankfully don’t have to find a way to defend the ubiquitous oom-pah oom-pah beat in “Elf Fire” – there isn’t one.  The frantic drumming underpinning the fast sections sets the tone without overwhelming the track with monotonous moguls.  Remember fight scenes in movies before editors decided we needed to “feel” every punch with a cut?  A camera a few feet back from both fighters allowed the audience to see the set up and the aftermath of each blow.  Modern fights that strive to be as “exhilarating” and “visceral” as possible often end up just muddying the action.  Out of control oom-pah beats create a similar disorienting feeling in many techno rides.  Yet the stormy sea of percussion in “Elf Fire” somehow manages to smooth out the track, keeping me amped up without obscuring too much of the road ahead.  I couldn’t relax, but I never felt like that track was simply in my way.  I still think the guitar deserves a volume increase, but a minor detail like that shouldn’t stop you from playing this song.

“Troyitska Pisnia” sounds nothing like anything by Nanten.  Viy’s excellent folk song would make a perfect soundtrack dub for the Ewok celebration at the end of a Ukrainian Return of the Jedi.  It’s so damn gleeful.  If I’m not picturing Ewoks, I’m seeing a film montage of a small happy village in the mountains.  Kids eating ice cream or chasing farm animals.  Adults making small talk and imbibing afternoon spirits.  Farm animals causing hijinks.  The various string instruments – guitar, fiddle, etc. – blend sweetly before going into a mild breakdown reminiscent of a Béla Fleck track.  The male singers enter gloriously at the end, singing who-the-hell-knows.  It sounds like a drinking song.  Perhaps it’s just a tune to commemorate a great year.  It could be anything (just look at the Tetris song).  Enjoy this one thoroughly.  The ride’s nowhere near as difficult as the traffic rating makes it out to be.  If you don’t have a good time, you must hate fun.

Author’s Note

All songs were played at least twice on the Pro difficulty using the Eraser and Vegas characters.  User RZCSan wins this week’s impromptu Best Comments contest by saying, “After listening to [“Elf Fire”], I fear I need a change of underpants.”  I can’t sympathize to such an extreme extent, but I do hope you had another pair waiting in the wings.

Anyone who’s reading this without having played Audiosurf (including non-gamers!) should really check it out.